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Research project

Inclusivity and secrecy: Governing information flows when negotiating peace in complex conflict contexts

This project, led by Simone Tholens and Øystein H. Rolandsen, investigates the practice of secrecy related to peace diplomacy within a context of conflict complexity and global demands for more public oversight and transparency.

‘Inclusivity and secrecy’ is a scoping project investigating the practice of secrecy related to peace diplomacy within a context of conflict complexity and global demands for more public oversight and transparency. Confidentiality is assumed to be a requirement in contemporary peace diplomacy. When parties involved in armed conflict explore a negotiated settlement, they often demand secrecy to create space to meet, test the potential for negotiations, and initiate a pathway to compromises. Providing back-channels and secure locations that ensure the level of confidentiality required by conflict parties have been the hallmark of post-Cold War peace diplomacy. But recent trends challenge this orthodoxy, including increased demand for transparency in (international) politics in general and peace processes specifically; more complex and fragmented conflicts, challenging established norms of secrecy; and finally, an enlarged and diversified ecosystem of peace facilitators.

Together these changes alter the conditions for peace processes and make it important to revisit existing norms and practices concerning confidentiality in peace diplomacy. In ‘Inclusivity and secrecy’ the research team will address an urgent need to investigate, compare and analyse the diversity of secrecy practices and their evolution over time, across actors and conflict contexts.

The project seeks to answer a set of key questions:

  • How is secrecy defined, rationalised and practically handled in different types of peace processes, and by different types of mediation actors?
  • What is the impact of secrecy in peace processes?
  • Are there alternative ways of approaching the need for confidentiality in such processes?

In order to take stock of the evolution of secrecy practices in peace diplomacy, ‘Inclusive secrecy’ will collect new qualitative data on secrecy practices among peace professionals and key organisations (the African Union, the EU (Division for Conflict Prevention and Mediation Support), the Vatican, CMI-Martti Ahtisaari Peace Foundation, Humanitarian Dialogue, Independent Diplomat, and Mediterranean Women Mediators Network) and explore how secrecy has been practiced in conflict contexts, including in Ethiopia, Syria and Ukraine.

The project will produce a framework for analysing secrecy in peace diplomacy along four sets of processes:

deniability and status, in particular by conflict parties who may be sensitive to their ‘constituencies’, or their external ‘sponsors’, perception of a dialogue with the ‘enemy’, as it could be seen as a sign that the armed struggle is over, with implications for troop commitment and external financing, or in the case of governments, because it may make them appear ‘weak on terrorism’;

timing, in particular concerning ‘when to go public’, in particular in light of many recent conflicts where talks are ongoing while fighting still takes place, thus challenging conventional conflict resolution orthodoxy of ‘ripeness’;

space, including how secrecy informs where secret talks can take place and how geography shapes the ecosystem of peace diplomacy;

– and repertoires of action, including the boundaries and limits of secrecy in peace diplomacy, and how different actors perceive those boundaries and the purposefulness of keeping talks away from the public eye.

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